Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The old college try.

Jennifer Huffman
Napa Valley Register
April 18, 2011

As a parent of three girls under 16, I thought paying for weekly hot lunches, sports team uniforms, and a new family computer was expensive. It turns out none of that compares to what we’re about to face.


Now when I was in college (yeah, I already sound old by just writing those words; I might as well have started that sentence with a “by-cracky”) my share of a two-bedroom furnished apartment near Sac State was $180 a month. Back then, there were CSU classes aplenty, with nary a budget cut in sight. By-cracky, those were the good ol’ days.

When our oldest was only 13, it seems like the biggest thing we had to worry about was a growing girl who needed new shoes every three months and a cell phone upgrade. I was blissfully unaware of what lay just a few years ahead of us. Now that she’s finishing up 11th grade, I see the future and it runs in the six figures. Mid- to high six figures, that is.

I’m afraid, very afraid.

Recently mom and dad and our high school junior met with a college counselor. In addition to a college fact-finding quiz for her, we were given a handout titled: “Top Ten Things Parents Should Remember About the College Search Process.”

Here are some of the “tips” we were given.

• “Remember, this process is not about you.” (Riiiiight. It’s not about us. It’s only about our bank account.)

• “Do not use the words ‘we’ when referring to your child’s college application process.” (That’s funny, because “we” are the ones paying for it.)

• “Encourage your child to make her own college appointments, phone calls and emails.” (Fine. I get it. But can we sit them down, hand them the phone and dial the number for them?)

Another handout listed recommended books for senior parents such as: “Almost Grown, Launching Your Child from High School to College,” and “Letting Go, a Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years” and “College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents.”

I take offense at some of these book titles. Panicked, me? I’m not panicked. No sir. I’m cool as a cucumber. I mean, we’re only talking about our daughter’s future here. If she doesn’t get into the right college, it’s all over! She’ll never get a “good job”! She’ll be doomed!

I came up with my own book ideas. Here’s one: “Financing a College Education on $5 a Day or Less.” Or, “The Magic 8-Ball College Search: ‘Admissions: It is decidedly so!’” Or what about: “Find a Wealthy Benefactor for Your High School Senior in Three Easy Steps!”

Part of the college search experience includes going to college fairs.

Recently, we headed over to Sonoma State for one such event.

In a gym stuffy with both air and the expectations of hundreds of high school juniors and their parents, college reps staffed more than a hundred tables, each draped with printed banners and little flags with campus names and logos.

Naturally our 16-year-old vanished the minute we walked in the doors, so this mom was left to drift up and down the aisles alone.

I was instantly overwhelmed.

There were big colleges, little colleges, two-year colleges, four-year colleges, colleges with dogs, warriors, and big cats as mascots, expensive colleges and not-as-expensive colleges (notice I didn’t say “inexpensive” colleges).

Every college had beautiful brochures filled with lots of photos of satisfied students.

Surely our girl would be happy at one of these fine universities, I reasoned.

At the same time, comparing the schools isn’t easy.

There’s no price tags listed at these tables. And there are definitely no “sale” signs advertising scholarships or other tuition breaks.

It’s not like shopping for a new car. I guess warranties and parking lot haggling is out.

I found myself wishing that each table had a virtual sign over it listing the total for tuition, room and board.

I mean, really, if one college costs $40,000 a year and another college costs $20,000 a year, I know which table I’m headed to first.

Finding our daughter at the end of another aisle, I was happy to see she’d collected a sack full of college brochures. Looking at her bag, I couldn’t help but wonder if her future college was in that sack, one that would receive her application and say, “This girl is PERFECT for our school. We’ve got to have her. Send a recruiter to her home immediately. Let’s give her a big fat scholarship.”

Making our way out of the college fair, I made the most exciting discovery yet. I found a college that offers room, board, rigorous training, a top-notch education, and a guaranteed job after graduation — for free!

It’s called West Point.

Now if I can just convince our girl she looks good in gray.

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